Big Yellow Hats


When my (now 31-year-old) nephew was young, he loved Curious George. If you know the story, through the many circumstances in which “George was curious,” the man with the big yellow hat encouraged him to explore, but was always there to keep him from going too far afield. George learned a great deal because the man with the big yellow hat allowed him the freedom to try new things.

Are you a “big yellow hat” leader? Do you encourage your staff to ask why, experiment, test theories and take risks, even when you know that sometimes they will stub their toes? According to a new report from The Bridgespan Group two of the core components in building a capacity for innovation within your organization are a curious culture, and catalytic leadership.

George was allowed to live in a curious culture. He took risks, and when he “failed” it became a lesson-filled learning opportunity. For the skeptics out there who are thinking your organization isn’t a cartoon and you can’t afford to have your staff play around, I would respond that, yes, there are risks that come with innovating. There are also costs associated with always coloring within the lines drawn by others. Just recognize that if you want your staff to identify creative approaches to the challenges before them, you have to let them explore a bit and ask “what if.” You have to let them be curious.

And what, exactly, is catalytic leadership? Merriam-Webster defines a catalyst as “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. Catalytic leadership provides the push needed to get the ball rolling in a specific, focused direction. The man in the big yellow hat always identified where they were going or what they were going to do, he simply allowed George the freedom to be curious along the way. Catalytic leadership isn’t about letting staff focus their energies in twelve different directions. It is about articulating a vision and priorities, and then letting your people grapple and experiment with the best way to get there. It is about mentoring and encouraging collaboration and hands-on learning. It is about allowing your staff to find a path forward.

Being a big yellow hat leader takes patience and the ability to embrace ambiguity. It requires a recognition that progress rarely happens in straight lines or amid a tangle of rules, and that one rarely knows the route to the end of the journey when standing at the beginning of it. It requires a clear vision of the destination and the ability to inspire others and serve as a role-model for embracing possibilities.

How exactly does one become a big yellow hat leader? The first step . . . is to be curious.

The Roots of Leadership

CornLast night, three generations of my family gathered to “work the sweet corn”. For the uninformed among you, that means picking, shucking, silking, cutting, cooking, and packaging ridiculous amounts of corn for freezing. As I was elbow deep in this family ritual, with my sister taking the annual picture of the crew at the shucking table, I couldn’t help but think about a Harvard Business Review article on Discovering Your Authentic Leadership. (Call me weird, it’s just the way my brain works, but if you stick with me there really is a connection!)

In the article ( Bill George and his co-authors noted that more than 1,000 studies have failed to produce a clear profile of the ideal leader. Rather, in their review of the studies, the authors identified the consistent thread among successful leaders was that “their leadership emerged from their life stories. Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core . . . the journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding the story of your life.”

Successful leaders can be shaped by positive and/or difficult situations, but the common theme is that they use their life experiences to give them meaning and discover their passion. So what does that mean for you and me? Well for one thing, it means that you can’t lead just like someone else. You might be able to model some aspects of your leadership on an individual you admire, but you can’t “wear” their exact style, and if you try, you will never reach your full potential as a leader.

I am the product of a close-knit rural family. Next week, you will find me at the county fair, where I will forever be one of the “Duncan Girls”, even though my last name has been Reed for nearly 30 years. Those things, along with a host of other experiences, have shaped who I am and how I lead. As noted previously in this post, in my first professional job after college I tried to be a Debra. I can’t pull it off. That level of formality is simply not authentic to who I am. I have great respect for people who are genuinely more formal, it’s just not me.

The good news is, according to the research there is no one “right way” to lead, so you might as well do it your way. Yes, you still need to learn and grow and stretch yourself, but the next time you read a leadership book, make note of the things that resonate with you, and give yourself permission to discard the pieces that don’t feel like a fit.

I make a conscious effort to stay connected to the people and values that helped shape me, and I believe I’m a better leader because of it. Not only that . . . I know how to make some killer freezer corn!